2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Professor Sir David MacMillan shares that when he looks back at his research journey, the most memorable moments were those in which he had the opportunity to collaborate with others. He also counts himself lucky to be able to work with individuals who are the best in the world at what they do.
The value of collaboration lies in its ability to move things forward in a way that would not have been possible to accomplish alone, Sir David believes. He sees an effective collaboration as one where both parties bring something different to the table, allowing each side to gain new insights. His advice to young aspiring scientists is to boldly pursue things that nobody has ever thought of or done before, and definitely work with like-minded people along the way. “The faster you can find people that you enjoy working with, the more fun the whole academic enterprise becomes,” he says.
Sir David is currently the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University. He shares the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Professor Benjamin List for developing a new type of catalysis that builds upon small organic molecules, which are now used in areas such as pharmaceutical research and have made chemistry more environmentally friendly.
When Sir David first embarked on his research journey back in the early 2000s, it was not as smooth sailing as one would presume. There were other scientists who were dismissive of the concept, recalls Sir David. But therein lies the importance of science communications: in science, it is not just about what happens in the labs—being able to communicate what you have accomplished or what you want to accomplish is really important.
Sir David attributes his success to his Scottish roots and working-class upbringing. Having grown up in the Scottish village of New Stevenston, he shares that one thing he holds close to heart was the way his community would interact with each other. “It was very communicative; we tell stories, we tell jokes, we entertain each other all the time. That forged my love for storytelling which, in turn, helped me in my scientific research.”
A strong sense of community and empathy is central to Sir David’s Scottish sensibilities. This is the reason why he created the May and Billy MacMillan Foundation and donated the sum of money he received from his Nobel Prize. Named in honour of his parents, the foundation funds programmes that provide educational opportunities for financially disadvantaged students in Scotland.